When Mariama Carson was a teacher in Pike Township, she saw firsthand how the heritage of her Spanish-speaking students was constantly being brushed to the side as they were encouraged to learn English.
“What we were doing was pushing down anything other than English,” said Carson. “We have students who are native Spanish-speakers who cannot read or write or send an email or text correctly to their own family members. That is wrong.”
So Carson decided to do something about it: She created a dual language school called Global Prep Academy where kids would learn half the day in English and half the day in Spanish as a new innovation charter school in Indianapolis Public Schools.
The dual-language method of immersing students in their native language for part of their class time and in English for another part is growing in popularity across the country as studies show it’s one of the most effective ways to help non-English speaking children master English while gaining the ability to read and write in their native language.
The programs are also popular with parents of English-speaking children who want their kids to learn a second language from a young age, so Indiana launched a pilot program two years ago that made funds available to schools that wanted to create or expand dual language programs.
But critics say the money isn’t being used as effectively as it could be because several of the schools that received the funds enroll mostly English-speaking kids.
That means the money isn’t helping as many children learn English as it could. It’s also not harnessing the full potential of dual language programs to help English-speaking children learn a language like Spanish from being around peers who speak that language at home.
That’s a lost opportunity, said Barbara Kennedy, director of dual language and bilingual education services for the Center for Applied Linguistics, a national nonprofit that researches and advocates for language learning in education.
“The research that is often referred to to sell these programs or to popularize them … is actually the research that applies to progress that includes English-learners,” Kennedy said.
Studies of dual language programs conducted over the better part of the past decade have shown that “two-way” language immersion programs that mix students from different backgrounds post strong academic results for all students involved, due in part because students can serve as models for each other.
But when Indiana lawmakers created the dual language grant program in 2015, they put few restrictions on the money, making no requirements that funds go to schools with high numbers of students learning English. Class makeup was never mentioned in the law that created the program or emphasized in discussions surrounding its passage. The only requirement was that programs start in kindergarten or first grade and divide instructional time so that students spend half of their class time speaking English and the other half speaking another language.
As a result Global Prep and another new program in Marion County, Warren Township’s Pleasant Run Elementary School, are the only grant recipients currently making a point of enrolling equal numbers of English-learners and native English-speakers — the ratio that experts say is the ideal mix for programs like these.
The four schools with mostly native English-speaking kids took slightly more than half of the $1 million in funding — $532,792 — but enrolled small numbers of English learners, between 0.5 percent and 12.2 percent.
That’s a dynamic that upsets researchers like Trish Morita-Mullaney from Purdue University.
“Dual language immersion is to historically repair harm to those communities,” Morita-Mullaney said. “Otherwise it’s … just benefitting people who are already benefitting.”
The grant recipients aren’t doing anything wrong, but advocates like Morita-Mullaney and Carson are hoping that if lawmakers next year discuss the possibility of extending the grant program, they’ll consider including incentives for schools that target a mix of kids from different language backgrounds.
“If culture and language matter, as we know it does, we have to make sure we are equalizing opportunities for all kids,” said Carson. “Dual-language programs initially were set up for Spanish-speaking kids.”
When dual language dollars go to schools where most students speak English, she said, there’s a danger that the programs could become little more than an enrichment program for already advantaged children who want to boast foreign language proficiency on their college applications.
“It wasn’t for these kids to get this economic advantage and now they’re bilingual,” Carson said. “It was from an equity standpoint, and that is who these programs should be serving.”
Not everyone shares this view, however.
It can be difficult politically for states like Indiana, where just 4.8 percent of students are English learners, to restrict funding for popular programs to schools that have a high number of immigrants.
One of last year’s grant recipients was a school in rural Batesville that got a little more than $172,000 to start a Mandarin immersion program.
Melissa Burton, director of student learning in Batesville said she knows the students in her program aren’t diverse. Nearly all of the district’s elementary school students — 97 percent — are white and the population of English-learners is decreasing, but dual langauge is a way for Batesville to bring cultural knowledge and understanding to kids who might otherwise never encounter a culture different from their own.
“I’m just so thrilled that a tiny little town like Batesville, at a small school, that we can give our students this opportunity,” Burton said. “It’s important that kids know a second language … I’m hoping (the program) draws more diverse enrollment to our school corporation that may not happen just because of our location.”
Batesville’s program currently enrolls about 50 kindergarteners in two classes. Each year, the district plans to add grades until the program serves kindergarten to fifth grade. As kids grow into middle and high school, the district is planning to add Chinese literacy classes and as well as classes taught in Mandarin so students can keep up their skills. The district also plans to offer Chinese culture classes for all students in the district.
“Every teacher will be a Chinese culture teacher,” Burton said. “It’s not just about the language. It’s about exploring culture and building relationships, and in a place where we don’t have a lot of diversity, it’s even more important to do those things. This program will change the culture of our school.”
Conversations about whether money for dual language programs should target children who are learning English have not gotten much attention in the statehouse since it passed. In fact, it’s not even clear at the moment that any money will be set aside in next year’s budget for dual language programs.
Peggy Mayfield, R-Martinsville, who originally championed the grant program law, says she has no plans to reintroduce any specific bills next year to extend it — which means targeted funds for the programs is running out.
The state says it’s working to help the nine participating schools find ways to be more efficient and sustain their programs, but Mayfield says she hopes funding doesn’t dry up.
“If this is something that is highly desired by parents and teachers and children, we need to give a close look to see how can we make this an ongoing thing,” Mayfield said.
Kim Park, who runs the program in Warren, isn’t too worried that the grant program is ending. Her school is determined to find the money to continue and has been thoughtful about buying books, software and other materials that can last for multiple years.
Nathan Williamson who is the director of early learning and intervention with the education department, said the state hopes the success and demand for dual language immersion classes is enough to encourage the legislature to continue the grants.
But for some, it’s more personal.
Cesar Roman, a parent of a Global prep student, wants to see policymakers ensure the programs stick around — and not just because his daughter Zoe is in one. A native Spanish-speaker, Roman learned in a dual language classroom as a child growing up in East Chicago.
“I have seen the benefits first-hand,” Roman said. “You do have to make some sort of policy or mandate to make sure that there is equity in the way that the funds are being distributed and that learning is taking place for all students.”